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John Williams and the Agony of Modern Music


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I’m not familiar with this book, although based on reviews I’ve just seen, it hasn’t aged well. But if Pleasants’ main argument is that composers aiming to write music relevant to a mass audience should write tuneful material, I absolutely agree.

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18 hours ago, Fabulin said:

"The executive glory of Western music is the symphony orchestra"---page 137


Based on all the possible instrument ensembles one can organize, like all the instruments of various ethnicities and new instruments and timbres being created, I'd say the symphony orchestra has become overrated. It's not like getting the common audience to appreciate Strauss or Sibelius or Schoenberg in their cryptic unmelodic composition. It seems that instrumentation unlocks endless opportunities for new types of expression, which anyone will be able to understand, like how some melodies only feel right if sung or have overtones of certain timbres, or have a diverse enough dynamic range that orchestras are too big and similar to simulate. Like how the mainstream can come to appreciate the orchestral music of John Williams as though it's this new form of human expression they hadn't realized before, the mainstream can easily adjust to endless spectra of expression through new aesthetic combinations. It's what jazz attempted that gave us many subgenres, and what other traditionalists have been doing all along, forging new paths for melody and harmony that weren't thought of before (because they couldn't be heard properly before.) The context and variation one can give one melody is almost endless, as it seems like a separate creation each time it's reworked into a new context. It's not the same as buying into previous cliches of how specific styles should sound and what melodies they evoke. It's instead fringing on all the unknown, keeping the universal principles of excellence that we know work. I think a lot of rare pop music with hidden influences (as anything widely appreciated is pop in it's own right) and new-age soundtrack music and vgmusic has begun exploring these deeper avenues of new melody writing. A LOT of this high-quality music isn't free, they've locked it away for purchase, which is what they do with anything truly good. And still, all classical instruments like strings and brass, have viable purpose within the bigger picture of craft.

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7 hours ago, Oomoog the Ecstatic said:


Based on all the possible instrument ensembles one can organize, like all the instruments of various ethnicities and new instruments and timbres being created, I'd say the symphony orchestra has become overrated. (...) And still, all classical instruments like strings and brass, have viable purpose within the bigger picture of craft.

I did not quote Pleasants on that because I necessarily agree, but because it's very close to what Williams has said in a few interviews. These are views from the 1950s and should be perceived as belonging to their time. Remember that at the time symphony orchestras or their abridged versions ruled the radio, the televison, cinema, all the pre-Elvis pop music, and a lot of big city dance music.

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  • 9 months later...
On 26/01/2021 at 1:28 PM, Fabulin said:

A music critic and author Henry Pleasants (1910-2000) wrote a very interesting book back in 1955, titled The Agony of Modern Music. Wikipedia describes this book as "a polemical attack on the direction taken by much of twentieth-century music and an argument in favor of jazz as the "true" master music of the time".


Some quotes from it seem to go in hand with the study of Williams' work.


On Wagner:

"The purely musical basis of Wagner's popularity is something contemporary composers of opera have never perceived. They have held to this method and discarded his manner, not recognizing that what was valid and vital in Wagner was precisely his manner, including particularily the excesses and extravagances the contemporary composer so heartily despises".---page 157


"The contemporary composer's error has been, not in failing to take up where Wagner and Strauss left off, but in failing to understand what Wagner had been. They were influenced by his theories and his method, and ignored the obvious musical reasons for his success. They neglected to note that the essential musical nature of opera had not been changed, least of all by Wagner, and that in the opera house, as in the concert hall, vocal melody, or an instrumental substitute for it, is the alpha and omega of music".---page 158


"Wagner was a musician, a composer in spite of himself. He achieved success and immortality in the theater just as Bellini and Meyerbeer and Verdi did---by writing hit tunes".---page 157


On Verdi:

"The composer, the student of music, the sophisticated listener, may think of Otello as being superior to Aida, and of Falstaff as being superior to Otello. But as pure music Aida is superior to both of them. The composers turned to Otello and Falstaff to inf out what it was that Verdi was driving at. They found something very much akin to the Wagnerian concept of integrated music-drama, free of Wagner's Germanic trappings. What they failed to understand was that even Verdi could be wrong, or at least go too far. Verdi's destination was Aida. He had developed a considerable momentum in getting there, and in Otello and Falstaff he overshot the objective. He did not come to grief. He had too much stability for that. But his successors foundered in rapid succession.

It is easy to understand, at this distance, the temptation Otello and Falstaff represented. They offered more excitement and pleasure. The pace is faster, the action more direct and, in the case of Otello, more violent and shocking. The form is less conventional. The set piece has almost vanished. There are some in Otello, although less numerous and less conspicuous than in Aida. There are very few in Falstaff. In other words, they represented, when superficially examined, and from the point of view of the time, a liberation from the operatic conventions, a step toward real music-drama, a closer approximation than Wagner was able to achieve of a complete jelling of the various arts involved in opera.

Such appreciation was correct enough, but the conclusions drawn from it were as mistaken as those drawn from the similar appreciation of Wagner, and hardly less disastrous, although easier to forgive. Verdi was the more honest progressive of the tow, or at least the more consistent, and his results were more convincing. Wagner's visions were a bit ridiculous. Verdi's never were. He had as good a sense of the theater as Wagner, and a more consicous understanding of the essentially musical nature of opera. Thus it was easy to believe that Otello and Falstaff owed their success and the high esteem in which they were held to what was new in them rather than to what was told.

This was true as far as the critics and the initiated public were concerned. But it was not the new that kept the operas in the repertoire. It was what still survived of the earlier Verdi".


Critics may praise as they will the declamatory style of Otello. But what keeps it in the repertoire is the opening chorus, the Drinking Song, the first act duet, the Credo, the Iago-Otello duet at the close of the second act, the great choral scene and Otello's monologue at the end of the third act, and Desdemona's arias in the fourth. There are fewer such melodic excursions in Falstaff, which is why Falstaff is less often in the repertoire than Otello.


Contemporary composers would have done better had they not dismissed the fact that Aida is still more popular than either Otello and Falstaff and always will be. Their error was in listening to the critics rather than to the box office.


About this even Verdi, for whom the box-office was never an institution to be taken lightly, may have been deceived. By the time Otello was produced he had achieved a position in the hearts of his countrymen and others where failure would have been next to impossible. But the fact was that Verdi, along with the main stream of music, had moved away from his popular base. He, too, had been seduced by the lure of a music that would be more than song.

This is the tragedy of European music in miniature. In aspiring to more than song its composers denied those very lyric faculties of music which prompt people to express themselves musically and which make the musical expression of others intelligible. Preoccupied with harmony and instrumentation, they forgot that the musician's primary purpose in life is to sing".----pages 159-161


Other statements:

"If he tries to write musically he ends, like Krenek twenty years ago, in a no-man's land between serious and popular music, or like Menotti today, somewhere between the present and Puccini. Or he finds, as did Weill, that he can compete succesfully with the really popular composers, and does so. In either case he ceases to be taken seriously as a serious composer".---page 165


"Music still lives in the theater. It probably always will. But it lives in the theater today, in America, at least, in the music of Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, Porter, Schwartz, and Berlin. Their shows have never been fully recognized as opera. But is not what a thing is called that counts. It is what it is. If opera is the extension of the theater in song, then these shows are opears, regardless of the spoken dialogue and regardless of who does the orchestration. By the same definition most modern opera is not".---page 165


"The significant musical fact of this century is not atonality, nor neo-classicism, nor neo-primitivism. These are techniques derived, not from a popular music requirement, but from the inability of the composer to express himself musically. Their purpose is not to satisfy a musical impulse but to disguise the absence of one. The only musical fact of real significance is the new music for which there is a demand".---page 166


"A strong style, like a strong current, absorbs every inferior stream that crosses its path. The proof of strength lies in the fact of absorption".---page 170


"The executive glory of Western music is the symphony orchestra"---page 137


Williams was 18 years old when this book came out. I wonder if he read it. I think the name of Pleasants might have been known to him, considering that: "Following the end of the war, from 1945 to 1955, Pleasants contributed articles on European musical events to The New York Times. He also wrote regularly for Opera Quarterly, was London editor for the magazine Stereo Review, and for 30 years, beginning in 1967, was the London music critic for the International Herald Tribune." 


Wow, this book must be awesome! Once I was looking for quotes from Julius Caesar and then I found a great service. On this site, https://freebooksummary.com/category/julius-caesar-quizzes often publish summaries and reviews on different books. I will try to search more there about this book too. I also want to read similar books or criticism about music. I would be thankful for your advice!

Wow, this book must be awesome!:blush:

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I haven't read this book, in particular, but it seems symptomatic of several polemic culture books that came at the time. For film music, Adorno and Eisler's COMPOSING FOR THE FILMS from 1947 is a good example of a similar angle with its attack on Hollywood conventions ("birdie sings, music sings") in favour of alternative, Brechtian verfremdungseffects as the "ideal".

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